Recently, I’ve been purging distractions from my life so I can focus on things that are most important to me. Among those distractions, I quickly identified unwanted phone calls and texts as “worth avoiding.” Even though I silence my phone, block on the first unwanted call, and use the built-in spam detection features - I’m still facing facts that over 90% of my inbound calls and texts are unwanted. No matter what I do to prevent the notifications interrupting me, they’re still there - I’m bothered by the notifications that need to be cleared, or cleaning out my voicemail, or the toil of actually blocking the unwanted contact.

Some of this is obviously unavoidable - spam callers don’t care who they call so long as the number connects, and phone numbers are a small enough search space that you can just keep auto-dialing. The best solution would simply be to get rid of my phone number altogether - though unfortunately that’s not possible at this time for me personally.

To make things worse, as my career has grown, so has the number of recruiters and marketers that want to reach me (and for whom cold-calling seems attractive to get my attention). No offense to either! But I need agency, because:

  1. While the vast majority of recruiters and salespeople I interact with are respectful, I have already been cold-contacted by multiple people this year who blatantly disrespected my time - such as calling me repeatedly until I picked up.
  2. There are “prospecting” companies (ex. ZoomInfo) that facilitate the occasional asshole cold-calling me, by resharing my phone number without my explicit consent, that I have little to no agency to stop thanks to weak privacy laws in the USA (…and “questionable” interpretation of what a “legitimate interest” in processing data constitutes in the GDPR).

So, what other options do I have?

(Maybe) The Next Best Thing

I wanted to set up something quickly that would allow me to divert at least some of the calls that I get, while being respectful to the recruiters/salespeople/etc. who attempt to contact me. It should provide clear steps to allow people to respectfully and asynchronously send me a message in a way that I want to be contacted, without the possible abuse case of “calling me until I pick up.”

Where possible, I don’t want anyone who interacts with me socially or professionally to be confused by this - so it probably shouldn’t be a modification to my existing number or ways that I’ve privately authorized people to contact me in the past.

To this end, I decided to try a little deception engineering: could I paste a “fake” phone number across my social media, where it should be vaccuumed up into the databases of contact information that are being resold, so anyone who does try to cold-call me is told to email instead? I could maybe just make that a fake phone number that appears unused, but I don’t want to inconvenience someone else who starts using that number or leave respectful callers hanging (again, the vast majority of recruiters and marketers have been great in my experience) - so I’d need to use automation to ensure a prompt and timely response is given to any caller/texter.

1. Picking a Voice/Messaging Platform

While there are a lot of great options to get a phone number out there (including free ones), I chose Twilio because I know that I need to automate responses, and probably want to have granular control over how my automation works.

A quick signup and credit card charge later, I became the owner of +1 (267) 627-8463. Spelled out, my new phone number is COS NAP-TIME. I really just want to focus, or sleep, or focus on sleep - enough to get a little vanity in my phone number.

This little vanity purchase costs me $1/month plus usage - so let’s get started on the usage.

2. MVP for Timely Responses to Calls/Texts

Now what I thought would be the hard part: making Twilio reply to all incoming texts and calls, telling people how I want to be contacted, ideally with as little ongoing cost and maintenance as possible.

Thankfully, Twilio has a serverless platform called Functions which allows you to run NodeJS in response to any incoming calls or texts. The code to accomplish this is actually dead simple, and pretty much lifted directly from Twilio’s example documentation. The only code I needed to reply to every texter with a prompt, informative message is:

const message = `This is a fake number courtesy of \
https://chris.partridge.tech - I use it to ignore \
unsolicited texts/calls. Please contact via email or \
LinkedIn to reach me.`

exports.handler = function (context, event, callback) {
  const twiml = new Twilio.twiml.MessagingResponse();
  twiml.message(message);
  callback(null, twiml);
};

And the calling logic is made only marginally more complex because I use Twilio’s built-in Say function to read out text using Amazon Polly in response to any incoming calls:

const message = `Hello. You have probably tried to reach \
Chris Partridge. This is a fake phone number that I put \
online intentionally, to avoid people using marketing and \
recruiting tools to try to contact me unsolicited. If we \
have scheduled time to speak, I have sent you my real \
number already. Please call that number. If you would like \
to contact me, please reach out by email or Linked In first. \
If you found this number, you should be able to find those. \
Thank you and goodbye.`

exports.handler = function (context, event, callback) {
  const twiml = new Twilio.twiml.VoiceResponse();
  twiml.say({ voice: 'man' }, message);
  return callback(null, twiml);
};

And that’s it! Building this - with no prior experience with Twilio - took around an hour. It will run almost-forever without much maintenance as long as I keep the credit flowing, which a lean $1/mo (for the phone number itself) plus pennies for the usage incurred. I may decide to put some easter eggs in these responses in the future if I get bored (say, elevator music on calls or cat pictures for texts?) - but for now, simplicity is key.

3. Deceiving Multi-Million-Dollar Companies

Keen readers will notice this article has been updated and rewritten. Previously, I shared a phone number on my site and on Twitter - public, easy-to-scrape sources that probably would mean that phone number eventually became the default number associated with my name. Importantly, I could surround that phone number with context on both my website and Twitter, so anyone who did find my fake phone number organically would know not to call or text it in order to contact me.

One month later, no dice. Not a single call or text was made to that fake phone number.

Another extremely disrespectful interaction occurred during that month interim, and I decided to enact more drastic measures even if that meant folks contacting me organically may be briefly tricked by my fake phone number. So, where’s the one place my phone number would 100%, without a doubt be snarfed up into ZoomInfo and their competitors? My LinkedIn profile.

Not even 12 hours after updating my LinkedIn contact information (adding my new Twilio number, where there had been no phone number before), COS NAP-TIME had stopped two cold calls, up to three by the end of 24 hours. For comparison, I usually receive only one cold caller per two weeks!

Effectiveness

This document is going to be a living document for the next couple months - I’ll update it with a tally of calls or messages my Twilio number receives over time, compared to the number of unsolicited calls I get at my usual phone number.

I’m also going to estimate how much clock time this saves me, even compared to the cost of setting this maybe-solution up. In terms of focus though, I can tell you already that it’s off to a great start.

More to come.